It is time to say a word or two about the aesthetic of this town, which is an acquired taste, to say the least.
It is said that Montreal is the Paris of North America (as Beirut is the Paris of the Middle East, Shanghai the Paris of the Far East and Abidjan the Paris of West Africa), and when I arrived here starry-eyed nearly a decade ago, I fully expected to come upon some Canadian version of the Champs Élysée. Alas, as I stood on the corner of St-Denis and Cherrier on my first day and observed the plainness of the surrounding three-story (grey) brick structures, I experienced a bit of a sinking feeling: it was more like Manchester.
This was in the Plateau Mont-Royal, mind you, a highly regarded bohemian neighborhood consisting entirely of more three-story brick buildings with exteriors marred by iron staircases. Aging wooden electrical poles appeared to be the norm here – a sight unseen in my native Balkans since the advent of communism. It was all decidedly unspectacular, provincial even.
I felt hungry so I consulted my Lonely Planet and headed over to Chez José, a highly recommended sandwich place on another highly recommended street – Duluth. It was a scruffy café on a sagging street corner, but I grabbed something anyway. From there, I walked up St-Laurent, the city’s so-called “Main,” passing by more low-rise brick structures, lots of tawdry-looking shops, a few cheap supermarkets and a porno cinema called L’Amour. I felt crestfallen as I descended down to St-Catherine, the downtown’s shopping high street. There was no Dior, Chanel or Hermès here, just some Banana Republic, H&M and a sex shop called Romance.
I found some succor in the Old Port but lost all hope in Côte-des-Neiges and Notre-Dame-de-Grâce. Everywhere was just a bunch of brick, man.
Soon, I began to notice that this un-exalted aesthetic extended to objects used in the city’s everyday life. While visiting someone’s house for the first time, I was served water in a jar. I asked the host what that was all about and he replied: “We’re hipsters here.” My grandma once had many such jars left over from jam and compote but no one ever dreamed of serving anything in them. That would have reeked of poverty, God-forbid. Only homemade plum jam could be stuffed back into these things and then only for personal use. But these Montreal jars were no ordinary jars, I learned. They were mythical Mason jars, highly prized and available only in Salvation Army stores and on Kijiji – the local version of Cartier. The love of these jars eventually became such a craze that the Dollar Store began making its own version so that all people could have one. Some people made them into chandeliers.
There are also the reused liquor and olive oil bottles and flower vases in which the coolest restaurants serve their tap water. That’s because you want, when quenching your thirst, to be thinking of oil and that residue cut flowers release after they’ve been soaking for a few days.
Then, there is the whole madness surrounding cachet - the catch phrase for all decrepit accommodations with some exposed brick wall and a wooden beam somewhere that up-and-coming people will now pay a small fortune for, although such places were originally built for the city's poor and working class. When I recently considered a decrepit property myself, I sent a photograph to my father who wrote back: “Steer clear. That row of brick buildings looks like something straight out of the novels of Charles Dickens.”
I don’t know how or when it happened, but it crept up on me just like those iron staircases creeping up all that brick all over town. It grew on me like Nick Drake’s Pink Moon after multiple listens and the Ethiopian sour pancake injera after numerous dips in its accompanying hot sauce. I became blind and so began to see: the diamond in the rough that is the city. Its beauty lies in the way it lives and breathes. In the way it sees. In the love it feels. And in all of its rough edges.
Which brings me to Garbage Day. Every street in Montreal has its own Garbage Day. This is an important day when the garbage that has been accumulating in one's kitchen finally gets put out to be whisked away. This is a day of great relief as every disposal of accumulated garbage feels like a mini personal cleanse. It is also an unsightly day. But somehow, not today. As I stepped around the garbage bags impatiently awaiting their pick-up on the sidewalk this Monday morning (a sighing old mattress in their midst), it struck me that the trash looked rather quaint with its tender cap of January snow. It was gritty like the city - and even a bit pretty.